It’s no secret by now that the governing Conservative party in Canada has, well, a conservative attitude toward unions. It’s been shown through the quick legislative intervention in the Air Canada pilots’ dispute this spring – following similar interventions involving Air Canada’s flight attendants and Canada Post. These were all justified as necessary to offset the potential damage of extended work stoppages to the Canadian economy. But the government’s reasoning was, shall we say, light on the specific details of the extent of this (alleged) damage, and why legislation was needed to prevent it. So, not surprisingly, these back-to-work laws have been characterized as just a convenient way to disrespect the bargaining rights of the parties in these disputes.
Clamping down on strike and lockout activity is a high-profile indication of the Conservative government’s feelings about unions. But there are other, more subtle, things going on too. In writing three editions of an Industrial Relations textbook over the past 10 years, I’ve made regular use of Human Resources and Skill Development Canada (HRSDC)’s website of labour relations data. HRSDC falls under the mandate of Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development; incidentally, Finley recently refused to apologize to the unions representing Employment Insurance workers for alleging their members were unproductive.
HRSDC’s union-related information has regularly changed format and location, for no discernible reason, every time I’ve made major use of it. While that’s hugely annoying – and probably very unhelpful for people not familiar with the website trying to locate this information – that’s a separate issue. What I want to talk about is the current version of the presentation of some of this information, and some of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages it sends.
Currently, HRDSC includes some union-related information in its website section on Indicators of Well-Being. At the top of each topic page in this section is a paragraph explaining the subject’s “Relevance”. This is the wording of the “Relevance” paragraph on the Strikes and Lockouts page:
“Strikes and lockouts tend to reduce earnings and affect the economic and social well-being of the workers and families involved. They can also affect other workers indirectly through layoffs or reduced hours in associated businesses.”
That’s right, they do. But what is missing from this explanation? How about:
– Most unions in Canada have the legal right to engage in a strike, and most employers have the legal right to engage in a lockout. These are important facts that need to be included in any explanation of “Relevance”.
– The economic impacts of lockouts and strikes can encourage the parties in collective bargaining to settle their disputes more quickly. Unions don’t want their members not earning paycheques, and employers don’t want to lose revenue. Quicker dispute resolution, and its associated benefits, also contributes to “economic and social well-being”.
– The economic effects of strikes and lockouts are precisely why unions and employers engage in them – to use those effects to back up their bargaining demands. The economic effects are not an unexpected or thoughtless byproduct of shutdowns, nor are they part of some oh-so-secret agenda.This seems to be something the Conservative government has trouble understanding, as shown by Labour Minister Lisa Raitt’s criticizing Air Canada pilots for planning a strike during the busy March Break travel time. The pilots’ planned actions would have done little to strengthen their bargaining power if the strike was planned for a quiet travel time.
And on the page on Unionization Rates, the “Relevance” statement reads:
“Unions provide workers with a support network to address various work-related issues that can impact their well-being. “
A “support network”? That’s demeaning, to say the least, given the formal and legally defined role of unions in a unionized workplace. How about including information like:
– Most workers in Canada have the legal right to join a union, and to join the union of their choice.
– Unions have a legal right to represent their members’ interests in the workplace, and the legal authority to bargain with the employer on behalf of their members. Certainly that should support workers’ sense of well-being, since they know that they have a formal representative looking out for their workplace interests.
– And unions don’t just “support” their own members. They “support” the effective functioning of the workplace as a whole, by participating (through bargaining) in shaping the rules and policies that oversee the workplace’s operations.
The one-sided-ness of these statements of “Relevance” is troubling. The Conservative government has a right to its opinion on unions and their actions. But Canadians also have the right to get correct and unbiased information from their government, and from its agencies which are supposed to serve us all equally. We deserve a lot better than this.